Trump on the verge of ‘profound disgrace’
WASHINGTON — Donald Trump stands on the threshold of what two expresidents called the “profound disgrace” of impeachment, a permanent stain on his legacy.
Of what Alexander Hamilton set out in the Federalist Papers as the apt remedy for “the misconduct of public men.”
Or what Trump mockingly dismisses as impeachment lite.
The leader who has sliced a scythe through institutions and thrives in disruption stands unrepentant as a splintered nation prepares to impeach a president for only the third time in history.
Yet the weight of history is at hand.
So is a certain numbness among we the people as a process once granted the gravity of exorcism — an awakening from a “national nightmare” — plays out for a public that consumes daily provocations from this unusual president and can read only so many tweets in a day.
The U.S. may be witnessing the trivialization of impeachment for charges that are anything but trivial, said Jeffrey Engel, a presidential historian and lead author of a book on impeachments that has found its way into the hands of senators as they prepare to hold a January trial on the House’s expected indictment.
“Our extraordinary partisanship has trivialized it,” he said. “We’re in a remarkably partisan time.”
Look closely, though and you can see that Trump, for all his shrugs and dismissive taunts, knows he is on the verge of making a list of presidential infamy. Impeachment, he said in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday protesting his innocence, is a “very ugly word.”
Trump is to join Bill Clinton, impeached 21 years ago for lying under oath about sex, and Andrew Johnson, impeached 151 years ago for defying Congress on Reconstruction.
Impeachment is not likely to engender an impulse of contrition for Trump, and it might not even sully his political future.
For every American who thinks Trump is a constitutional criminal, another American thinks he’s being railroaded.
Yet, for all time, there will no erasing the ultimate presidential black mark.
“Make no mistake, the judgment of history does matter,” former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter wrote in an op-ed after the House impeached Clinton in 1998.
Ford and Carter were, in turn, the presidents who picked up the shattered pieces of Richard Nixon’s presidency in the searing episode by which all presidential corruption scandals have been measured since, Watergate. Nixon only avoided impeachment because he quit on the cusp of it.
In their joint article, Ford and Carter pleaded for Congress to skip Clinton’s trial in the Senate because, they said, profound disgrace from the House impeachment would follow him forever. They wanted him censured instead.
The Senate went ahead with the trial and acquitted him, just as it did with Johnson and as it is likely to do with Trump.
Clinton and Nixon were halfway through their second terms, approaching the twilight of their presidencies when they faced the threat of impeachment.
Trump is standing for reelection, giving his impeachment the flavor of the kind of dramatic showdown he professes to relish.
Raging at his accusers, the Democrats, while stonewalling them, Trump says he takes no responsibility for all that’s transpired and is yet to come.
“Zero, to put it mildly,” he said Tuesday, accusing Democrats of “cheapening” the very idea of impeachment.
To presidential historian Robert Dalleck, the consequences are far-reaching.
“The miracle of America has been that it’s been able to hold together,” he said. “To sink into this national division that exacerbates these differences and tension is to open the way to the collapse of American democracy, I think.”
During the Clinton impeachment, constitutional scholar Michael Gerhardt was the only expert witness called by both parties to testify. Democrats summoned him again in the House Judiciary Committee hearings in the Trump impeachment.
“The president is really denying the legitimacy of the Constitution and of inquiry,” he said in an interview, tracing what he sees as distinctive about this president and this impeachment.
The Clinton impeachment also took savagely partisan turns. Yet Donald Ritchie, an official Senate historian then and for many years, said key norms were respected as the upper chamber tried and acquitted the Democrat.
Procedural rules were approved unanimously, he said, and everyone had a chance to speak. “The Senate operated in very dignified, fair and impartial manner.”